Exploring Burgundy by barge

Travel editor David McGonigal says summer barging in Burgundy should go to the top of your bucket list. Here’s why!

There are some moments in travel that are so inherently perfect you can almost taste them in anticipation. Sunrise over Machu Picchu, Christmas in a snowy New York or sailing in Tahiti. For those who appreciate the finer things in life, summer barging in Burgundy should also be at the top of the list.

Planning the barge journey
I flew to France, with clear expectations and high anticipation. Would reality and fantasy meet to form a perfect whole? Planning the trip had been more difficult and much more time consuming than I’d anticipated. That was until I discovered Outdoor Travel who market a wide range of barging and river cruising holidays throughout the UK and Europe.

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Enjoy the best that Burgundy has to offer, tour by barge!

Soon I was booked on a seven-day Burgundy journey on La Renaissance from Montargis to Chatillon-sur-Loire that passes along the Canal de Briare and the Canal Lateral a la Loire. Only two-hours by car to the south east of Paris the trip offered a wealth of highlights.

The vessel
Experienced cruisers know the frisson of excitement when approaching a new vessel and a new cabin for the first time. No photographs or descriptions tell the whole story. From the welcoming flute of champagne, La Renaissance didn’t disappoint.

There were six of us (all English-speakers) for the vessel’s four cabins, that were all downstairs, and each cabin was enormous (24 square metres) and more like a hotel suite. The room furnishings were oversized and plush and the bedding was the softest of down. My portholes were at eye level with a duck and ducklings paddling past.

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The 'La Renaissance' amongst the beautiful Burgundy scenery 

Upstairs was our main living area and it was equally comfortable with a large lounge area with a satellite television we never found time to turn on, a wide range of books and a coffee station. The dining room with its large single table for all of us lay forward and beyond that was the kitchen and crew area.

At the back there was a very large wooden deck with a table and chairs and a Jacuzzi at the very stern.

After beginning life as a cargo barge, La Renaissance only commenced operations in 2008 as European Waterways’ most luxurious hotel barge. The food exceeded even our expectations and all food and drinks were included in the fare. While the entrees, mains and desserts were excellent and very well presented, the wines and cheeses were absolute highlights and each was described in loving detail before serving.

Of course, we were travelling through Burgundy, synonymous with wine. In fact, White Burgundy is universally made from chardonnay grapes and Red Burgundy from pinot noir grapes.

Our epicurean standards rose so quickly that even a soft unpasteurised French cheese that I had though sublime in Australia wasn’t even the best cheese served at one lunch.

A hard-learned cautionary note to intending bargers: don’t text back home to an overworked partner with a list of the wines and cheeses served with each meal.

The journey
The difference between ocean cruising to river cruising is stark. As starting points the vessel doesn’t roll, the vessel feels much more intimate and there’s always scenery outside.

The step from river cruising to canal barging is just as significant. Travelling only by day and generally at 6km/h or less, the distance covered in a week could be done by any other form of transport in a day. Indeed, a leisurely walking pace will keep you ahead of your barge in an area that has locks.

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Admire the stunning scenery whilst barging through Burgundy

Houses and farms are close enough to conduct a conversation from the deck and the locks are plentiful, ancient and incredibly tight. La Renaissance measures about 51 m by 5 metres and fits through several locks with mere centimetres to spare.

Slow travel in France reveals a nation that has spent centuries refining sophisticated living. The barge is the perfect platform to view the surrounds. But there’s also a minivan that accompanies the vessel (staff move it to the next destination each night). Several excursions away from the canal are offered.

Highlights included a visit to the medieval village of Sancerre, perched on a hilltop and with a wine growing culture that stretches back to Roman times. We also visited a small private vineyard that is spectacularly based in a large cave. Seeing Gien, the home of Faience pottery and Chateau Sully sur Loire, a grand 14th Century medieval fortress was amazing. So was visiting the World-Heritage listed Chateau de Fontainbleau, a 1500 room palace that is one of the largest royal chateaux and a memorable night was having dinner at the Michelin-starred Auberge des Templiers in Les Bezar.

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Have you ever done a river cruise in Europe?

However, the two most special moments of the whole week both related to the canals we were travelling along. The first was at Rogny les-Sept-Ecluses where the modern canal runs close by the overgrown but very impressive seven consecutive ancient locks that first enabled vessels to pass across this terrain 350 years ago.

Briare is the historical and engineering pinnacle of the voyage. It’s a nice town with some great produce on offer at the outdoor markets. But its historical significance is much greater.

As Paris grew it needed a transport route to the Mediterranean and so the Briare Canal was born. But the canal had to cross the Loire River so Gustave Eiffel used his skill at designing with iron to build a 662-metre bridge for the canal to pass far above the river. It opened in 1896 and shows much of the design flair that he used to create the Eiffel Tower. To fully experience it, you need to be on a barge, gliding along the narrow canal and looking down to the river far below.

Is barging for you?
Travelling southwards as we did, this was a fitting last day before being driven back to Paris. It was sad to say goodbye to the crew and our barge. It had been a wonderful week of luxurious, carefree indulgence.

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Holidaying on a barge is the perfect way to relax and sightsee

Is there a downside to barging? The inherent risk is that one or more of the group won’t fit in, as barging is just as intimate as a week at a friend’s place in the country. However, those attracted to barging tend to be both convivial and worldly so perhaps the risk is minor. It certainly wasn’t a problem on my trip.

The risk would be eliminated completely if you rented a barge with a group of friends. Served by an experienced skipper and the talented crew (and chefs) of La Renaissance that may be the perfect holiday.

Have you ever been barging? Let us know in the comments section below.